Sunday, 8 December 2019




Those who have studied Gemara would know that Tosafot is arguably the most complex and challenging section of Talmudic commentary. There is an intense to and fro of technical questions, answers and compromises to difficult hypotheses – all this in an argumentative style known as dialectics. These legal and theoretical dialectics are almost mathematically precise in their structure.

We know the names of 44 Baalei haTosafot. But we do not actually know how the Tosafist literature printed in our standard Talmudic versions (known as Tosafot shelanu) came to be selected. The determining factor may well have been as random as the price and availability of manuscripts.[1]

This dialectic form of crisp analysis, as practised by the Tosafist rabbis of northern France and Germany, became the hallmark of Tosafist literature. The Tosafist period was spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) and continued for over two hundred years ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293).

Being such an integral component of Talmud study, it comes as a surprise that this very ‘Talmudic’ style of learning appears to have some of its origins in the non-Jewish cultural milieu within the same time period as the Tosafists, and also within the same geographical area. In fact, there is research which shows that the characteristically Tosafist technique of dialectical argumentation may have its stylistic roots in the French cathedral schools of that period!

Contemporaneous rabbinical literature refers to the dialectics of the Tosafists as ‘dialektica shel goyim’- the dialectics of the gentiles.

I have drawn from Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel from Yeshiva University who (besides having a passion for trains) is regarded as one of the foremost experts in the field of rabbinic literature and medieval Jewish history, particularly the Tosafist period.[2]


To be clear from the outset, Kanarfogel writes:

“That Jews learned dialectic in a formal way from the Christians is rather doubtful. Even if there were Talmudists who could read Latin to a significant degree—which does not appear to have been the case—there is scant evidence that mainstream Talmudic scholars were actually familiar with the texts of any Christian works of theology or jurisprudence that employed the dialectical method.”

However, Jewish and Christian scholars did interact on various personal levels and did hold discussions in the vernacular about matters of mutual interest. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, for example, had open and frank dialogues with the Count of Champagne.[3]

Many scholars hold the view that the Tosafists adopted similar dialectical techniques and argumentative methodologies to those prevailing within the Christian community with whom they engaged in discussion and conversation.[4]

According to Kanarfogel, there was sufficient interaction for a two-way exchange to effectively take place. In the course of direct conversation and without necessarily recourse to each other’s texts, Jews taught Christians a form of biblical study based on an interpretation of the Torah, known as peshat (similar in style to Rashi’s commentary) – while Christians influenced the Tosafists in the area of dialectics. These dialectics would have resonated with the Tosafists who would have already been familiar with a similar but less intense form of Talmudic debate and analysis from the earlier Talmudic period.

Kanarfogel writes:

“Indeed, if a circle with a radius of eighty miles or so is drawn around the leading cathedral schools in northern France during the twelfth century (such as Laon, Chartres, Orleans and Paris), the most important Tosafist study halls in northern France can also be found within the limits of that circle.”


The Italian Tosafist Yeshaya di Trani (d. 1240) also known as Rid, speaks of a parable which he heard from, what he calls, ‘the philosophers’ about ‘a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants’. Although the dwarf is shorter than the giant, he can see further than the giant by standing on his shoulders.

He uses this analogy to show that all of the qualified Halachic decisors of his day, including himself, can sometimes rule against the decisions of the earlier rabbis, although the latter were men of far greater stature.[5] This approach was adopted by many other Tosafists as well.[6]

Although obviously, no one has exclusive rights to analogies, it is quite telling that this analogy was first used by Bernard of Chartres[7] (d. 1126) who was a monk and also the chancellor of the cathedral school of Chartres. He used the analogy to show that philosophers in his day could argue with the views of the founding fathers of philosophy and religion.[8]

R. Yeshaya di Trani’s student, Tzidkiya ben Avraham haRofe min haAnavim, writes in his Shibbolei haLeket that this parable originated with non-Jews.[9]

This is one example of a Tosafist acknowledging influence and borrowing from the surrounding culture.


Kanarfogel describes how the shift towards dialectics within the non-Jewish world began within the monastic circles of France and Germany:

“Learned monks assimilated vast amounts of Scripture and its interpretation, as well as Church law and other bodies of knowledge, through their constant and repetitive patterns of reading and review. The monasteries encouraged the study of cannon law as it existed (and even advocated its memorization), without attempting to reconcile seeming contradictions or other textual problems that appeared throughout the corpus. The goal or aim of monastic study was simply to soak up or gather as much material as was to be found, in the broadest possible way.”

Then, at the end of the 10th century, the cathedral schools began to compete with the monasteries for students. A century or so later, the cathedral schools had won their position of dominance within the educational system of the church.

The cathedral schools achieved their victory because of two successful strategies:

Firstly they changed their focus from a traditional to a more contemporary perspective: The earlier monastic schools were situated at traditional and historically evocative locations - whereas the newer cathedral schools appointed charismatic teachers with specific and individualized styles of education. The students were more attracted to the Teacher than to the Location.

Secondly, although still studying the traditional texts, they sought to clarify them and even rectify those that contradicted others. They did this by developing sharp dialectical skills. The student no longer just read or recited the text, but he boldly debated and analysed the text.

This scholastic dialectic became the hallmark of the cathedral schools as evidenced by various works emerging at that time. This ‘revolution’ in teaching was taking place in northern France around the time of the birth of Rashi in Troyes[10] in Champagne, northern France in 1040.

Kanarfogel cites David Knowles who shows that the 11th century Christian canonist, Gratian[11] who authored the Decretum Gratianicomposed an overarching the dialectical approach...

I noticed that Gratian’s work is also described as being “presented in the form of a treatise designed to harmonize all the contradictions and inconsistencies existing in the rules accumulated from diverse sources.”[12] 

These could just as easily describe the methodology of Tosafist literature which was beginning to flourish from that same time as well. 

Kanarfogel describes the parallel technique and style of the emerging Tosafist literature as follows:

“Their steady and extensive use of the [dialectical][13] a means of inquiring from and about the texts of the Talmud which then allowed them to suggestively interpret these texts and to issue definitive halakhic conclusions helped the Tosafists to establish their own renaissance, which led to a sea change in the study of Talmud and Jewish law.”


The popularity of dialectical study within the cathedral schools was not without controversy which came from the traditionalists who wanted to go back to the old monastic system of textual study as opposed to textual analysis.

One outspoken critic of the new dialectical system was Bishop Stephen of Tournai[14] around the mid-1100s, who wrote:

“Students applaud nothing but novelties, and the masters are more intent on glory than doctrine. Everywhere they draw up new and modern summaries and supporting
commentaries on theology with which they lull and deceive their listeners as if the works of the sacred fathers did not still suffice.”[15]

These new dialectical cathedral schools were thriving with students, who according to one description were:

“...teeming with cavalier students, whose breasts swell with pride in their knowledge, who can dispute, cast doubt, redefine old usage...and have the nerve to contradict and show up their own teachers.”[16]

Interestingly this is also, to some extent, a criticism to this very day levelled against those students of the Tosafist (and pilpul) style who pride themselves predominantly on their dialectical acumen.

In some extreme cases, the Tosafists even suggest that a Talmudic sage (known as an Amora) was mistaken. This has led some to believe that the term Tosafot does not just mean a gloss or commentary on the Talmud, but rather indicates the ability to sometimes expand (Tosafot literally means ‘expansions’) on the Talmud itself.[17]

Bernard of Chartres, being a mystic[18], was very much opposed to the dialectical method of study which was so popular in the cathedral schools and he tried to get students back to the monasteries.  Expressing his disdain for dialectics which he called ‘Babylon,’ he wrote rather tellingly:

“Flee from the midst of this Babylon and save your souls; fly to the cities of refuge [i.e., the monasteries]. You will find much more in the forests than in the books, and the rocks will teach you more than any master.”[19]


The parallels between what had transpired in the Christian world and what was to take place about a century later in the Jewish world are staggering.

Until around the time of the First Crusade (1095-1099) the aim of Torah scholarship was primarily about acquiring as much knowledge of the Talmudic texts as possible. There was little focus on reconciling difficult texts.  This can be seen in the typical Halachic works of the time such as Ma’aseh haGaonim and even with Rashi’s general commentaries on the Torah and Talmud. There was no intense interest in pursuing a dialectical approach to Torah study. This very much corresponded -obviously in style, not in content - to what was taking place in the monastic schools at that time.


Following the same pattern as the shift from monastic to cathedral schools, in the past, the Jewish academies of learning were mainly named after their geographical location. With the advent of the Tosafist ‘renaissance’ that all began to change and students started to coalesce around the personality of the teacher, rather than around the ethos of a place of learning. The hallowed halls of study were replaced by hallowed personalities.

The reason for this paradigm shift in approach to learning had to do with the new method of study - namely dialectics. Each teacher had a nuanced style of teaching dialectics and this determined which student would go to which teacher. Of course, this would also have occurred in previous generations as well, but not to the extent that it did during the Tosafist period.

In earlier times (in Ashkenaz – i.e., northern France and Germany), the main Torah academies were situated in Mainz and Worms, which were identified by their location and not by their teachers.

An example of this can be seen in some of the responsa literature[20], where questions were sent to the Yeshiva of Mainz and simply addressed to the unnamed ‘scholars of the city.’ This, despite the fact that great and leading rabbinic figures like Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1040) were being addressed.  The majesty of the locale overshadowed the personalities of its leaders.[21]

However, towards the middle of the 1100s the status quo began to change with the emergence of the Tosafists, and suddenly the teacher became the centre of attraction over the customs and traditions of the venerated location.

Some Spanish scholars were amazed to see how students in Tosafist academies regarded their teachers as peers, and sometimes even emerged victorious over them.[22]

Kanarfogel describes the change of emphasis from locale to teacher as follows:

In the Tosafist period, a city or town had an important, high-level academy
only when a particular Tosafist or other rabbinic scholar was there. Students
wandered from the study hall of one leading scholar to the study hall of another,
and the rabbinic scholars themselves occasionally changed locales. Thus, for
example, we hear nothing about the academy or study hall in Ramerupt or
Troyes once Rabbenu Tam had departed...

Moreover, the Talmudic comments that were produced in the academies of the Tosafists were referred to as the commentary of Rabbenu Tam or the Tosafot of Ri.”

And, significantly, these changes took place within the Tosafist community a generation or so after they occurred within the cathedral schools, which tend to show some form of stylistic influence.


Just like some of the Christian mystics opposed the shift to more cerebral dialectics, the Jewish mystics of Chasidei Ashkenaz also spoke out with disdain against the dialectical style of the Tosafists.

The Sefer Chassidim of Chasidei Ashkenazclearly recognized the dialectical method that was prevalent within Christian learning”.

Sefer Chassidim discouraged the use of pilpul, another form of dialectic study. After the section discouraging students from becoming involved with ‘dialektica shel goyim’, or dialectics of the gentile nations,[23]Sefer Chassidim speaks against any style of learning that involves a one-up-mans-ship or ‘limmud shel nitzachon’, where the study produces a ‘winner.’

The Chasidei Ashkenaz were evidently aware of the emerging influence on the Tosafists, which emanated from a dialectical form of study which was practised in the cathedral schools, where teaching often took the combative form of a disputation.

(On the other hand, there was one aspect of the church that Chassidei Ashkenaz felt worthy of emulation and that was decorum during services which seemed to be lacking from the Jewish prayer services.[24])


Kanarfogel acknowledges that this research is not yet fully ‘airtight’:

“If we had from an earlier period additional explicit texts like the passage in Sefer Hasidim, which clearly points to Jewish awareness of Christian dialectic and its methods, our case would be airtight.”

Nevertheless, the remarkable similarities in dialectical methodology; the coinciding moves from locale to teacher; and the parallel shifts from textual study to textual analysis - all of which were taking place almost simultaneously between the two communities living and interacting in such close proximity - are very compelling.


There is, however, an alternative and more ‘traditional’ narrative to Kanarfogel’s model of the emergence of Tosafist dialectical methodology.  

In this account, there is no need to resort to any cultural parallels between Tosafists and cathedral schools:

As a result of Disputation of Paris in 1240, the church burned twenty-four carriage loads containing 12,000 Hebrew manuscripts, in a public square in Paris.[25]

A certain Nicholas Donin, a disenchanted Jewish scholar who had converted to Christianity, translated various controversial Talmudic texts into French and invoked the ire of the church against the Jews. These translations caused Christians to rethink their perceptions of the Jews. The church was now determined to eradicate any vestige of the Talmud forever.

The Tosafists got together and devised a plan to quickly memorise sections of the Talmud. Experts were appointed, each to master a particular section, and thus save the Talmud from being lost to history. Each Tosafist repeated the section of his specialization to his colleague who in turn repeated his section from another volume and the resulting difficulties and contradictions were discussed and debated. This comparison of disputed texts resulted in the dialectics of the Baalei haTosafot as we have them today.

While this is a very moving and fascinating account, the fact remains that this event took place less than fifty years before the end of the Tosafist period which concluded with the passing of R. Meir of Rothenburg in 1293 who apparently witnessed the burning of the books. Considering that the Tosafist period began with Rashi in 1040, this means that there were still about two hundred years of earlier Tosafist activity, before the burning took place.

This narrative, unfortunately, does not account for the earlier very active two hundred-year period during which time the dialectical method of Tosafist study was already clearly well documented and established.


The question as to what extent Jewish movements, in general, are influenced by the environment in which they find themselves will probably never be conclusively and fully resolved. This is because the issues at stake are too high for objective analysis. There will always be those who believe that Jews were consistently living in islands of time and space, never venturing outside of their four cubits, and oblivious of and impervious to the cultural trends surrounding them – and then there will be those who study history who believe that that perception was rarely, if ever, the case.

The Reader may be interested to see two other areas of Jewish thought where the matter of influence is also discussed; See Babylonian Influences on the Babylonian Talmud and Chassidism: a Reaction to – or Product of – Modernity? and Chovot haLevavot – A Sufi Connection?

For more on Chasidei Ashkenaz and the Tosafists, see:

[1] This is why the Tosafot which are printed as separate entities are often longer and more comprehensive than the standard versions in the Gemara. See Dr Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Tosafist Oeuvre and Torah u-Madda.
[2] Ashkenazic Talmudic Interpretation and The Jewish–Christian Encounter, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.
[3] Tosafot ha-Shalem, ed. J. Gellis (Jerusalem Mifʿal Tosafot ha-shalem, 1982‒), 1:178, sec. 8.
[4] Eleazar Touitou, Exegesis in Perpetual Motion, and Sara Kamin, Jews; and
Christians Interpret the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), 13‒6; and Michael Signer, “King/Messiah in Rashi’s Exegesis of Psalms 2,” Prooftexts 3 (1983): 273‒278.
[5] Teshuvot ha-Rid le-Rabbenu Yeshayah di-Trani ha-Zaken, responsum 62.
[6] Such as Rabbeinu Yitzchak, the Ri of Dampierre, his student R. Shimshon of Sens, and the brothers of Evreux.
[7] Pronounced ‘Shartr’(if I’m not mistaken)
[8]We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”  (Most of his teachings were recorded by John of Salisbury, see The Metalogicon (1159) bk. 3, ch. 4).
[9] Introduction to Shibbolei haLeket.
[10] Pronounced ‘Tchwa’ (with the ‘ch’ as in ‘chaver,’ if I’m not mistaken).
[11] Although born in Italy, Karnafogel believes Gratian “studied theological dialectic with Abelard in northern France, or was at least familiar with his works.” Peter Abelard (d. 1142) wrote the Sic et Non (Yes and No) and was a master of dialectics.
[12] Encyclopaedia Britannica. See under Gratian.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] Pronounced ‘Toornei.’ Tournai is a city in western Belgium, near the French border.
[15] Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society, 310‒311,
[16] Jaeger, The Envy of Angels, 217,
[17] Dr Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Tosafist Oeuvre and Torah u-Madda.
[18] Although he was also the chancellor of a cathedral school.
[19] J. Le Goff, Intellectuals in the Middle Ages, 21‒22.
[20] That is, the written questions and answers (sheilot uteshuvot) of a Halachik nature.
[21] It’s interesting to note that Rabbeinu Gershom passed away in the same year as Rashi was born – around the time when the shift from locale to teacher was beginning to take place.
[22] Dr Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Tosafist Oeuvre and Torah u-Madda.
[23] Haym Soloveitchik, “Three Themes in the Sefer Ḥasidim.
[24] Moshe Hallamish, “Siḥat Ḥullin be-Beit ha-Knesset: 226‒227.
[25] The actual burning took place two years later in 1242.


  1. Although they don't appear as part of the Tosfot on the Daf, but can a similar case be made regarding the Baalei Tosafot from Ashkenaz, such as the R. Natan Ben Eliezer (HaRaven), R. Eliezer Ben Yoel Halevi (HaRavya), Simcha from Shperia, Shmarya Ben Mordechai, the Or Zarua, just to name a few?

  2. Fascinating question EA.

    Yeshaya di Trani (Rid) did spend some time studying under R. Simcha of Speyer.

    Some students of Rabbeinu Tam did return to Germany, and unassumingly took his methodology with them.

    Also Shmarya ben Mordechai was consulted by Rabbeinu Tam (according to Or Zarua).

    The Or Zarua went to Paris in 1217 and studied under R. Yehuda ben Messer Yitchak Leon, a descendant of Rashi. (Then he returned to Germany and studied under R. Eleazar of Worms of Chasidei Ashkenaz. The Maharam of Rothenburg was his student.)

    So it seems as if there was a lot of exchange between northern France and Germany.